For more than a century, athletes have used the zigzagging path of a knuckleball to confound their opponents. Knuckleballing is best known in baseball but appears also in volleyball, soccer, and cricket. It occurs when the ball has little to no spin. The source of the knuckleball’s confusing trajectory, according to a new study, is the unsteadiness of the lift forces around the ball. As the ball flies, tiny variations occur in the flow on either side, causing small variations to the lift as well. Using experiments and numerical models, the researchers established that this white noise in the lift forces is sufficient to cause knuckleball-like path changes.
They were also able to explain why some sports see the knuckleball effect and others don’t. The wavelength of the deviations – the distance between a zig and a zag – is relatively long, so knuckleballing can only be noticed if the distance the ball flies is long enough for the deviation to be apparent. Additionally, the side-to-side motion is largest when flow on the ball is transitioning from laminar to turbulent flow, so knuckleballing also requires a very particular (and usually low) initial speed. (Image credit: L. Kang; research credit: B. Texier et al.; submitted by @1307phaezr)